What is Network Latency?
In the digital era we live in today, we can’t afford to wait forever for email attachments to load or sit through Zoom meetings that keep cutting out. This is why we need to talk about one of the most important words that affects our everyday internet experience: Latency.
So, what is network latency?
The meaning of latency in networking refers to the time it takes for data to travel from a client device to a destination and then travel back to the origin server. In simpler words, it measures the time between when a user takes an action (such as clicking on a link or an image) and when the reply arrives from the server (when the link or image pops up and has completed loading).
Also called “lag” or “ping,” an example of latency is how long it takes for a website’s contact page to load once you click on the “Contact Us” button.
Because we define latency by a delay or length of time, we need to understand how lag is measured.
What is network latency measured in?
Latency time is measured in milliseconds by one of two metrics. The first method is called Round Trip Time (RTT) and the second is called Time to First Byte (TTFB).
RTT reads a network delay by measuring the amount of time it takes a data packet to move from a client device to the network server and back. Hence, its name– “round trip.” The TTFB metric analyzes the length of time it takes for the network server to receive a data packet once it’s sent from a client device.
Bandwidth vs latency
It can be easy to conflate latency with bandwidth since they’re two sides of the same coin. So, let’s take a moment to differentiate the two. We already know that latency, or lag, is a time-based metric that denotes a delay in user experience (UX). Whereas bandwidth measures data quantity or size. In other words, bandwidth represents the maximum amount of data that can travel through a network at any time.
It’s important to note that with bandwidth and latency, high bandwidth is good while high latency is bad, and low bandwidth is bad while low latency is good.
Think of bandwidth like a straw
A good analogy for bandwidth is a regular ole plastic straw. Think about ordering something to drink that has a thick consistency, like a berry smoothie. If you try to slurp it up with the standard straw that’s typically given with soda, the straw won’t be wide enough for you to drink your smoothie.
The standard plastic straw represents poor or low bandwidth, while a wide straw provides a much better, higher bandwidth. So, when you have sufficient bandwidth, you can easily download a lot of data (aka, you get more smoothie out of the straw).
But what is network latency in reference to bandwidth? Let’s talk about their effect on each other.
Does high bandwidth mean lower latency?
Yes, in most cases, bandwidth and latency are inversely proportional to each other. This means that when bandwidth increases, the latency decreases and vice versa.
Why is this? Well, let’s revisit our straw analogy. The wider the straw is (which would be higher bandwidth), the faster the smoothie can travel. But what’s network latency in this straw analogy? It’s the speed that the smoothie moves through the straw. And, since there are very minimal delays in a smoothie traveling up a wide straw, the result is better, low latency.
On the other hand, sipping on a smoothie through a narrow straw (low bandwidth) slows down the speed at which the smoothie travels. Thus, it takes longer to slurp up the smoothie, which results in a longer delay time– aka, high latency.
Why is latency important?
Lag time can have a huge impact on your online experience. If you don’t have a low latency network, you may find yourself constantly getting frustrated at your screen when it’s taking forever to load a Reddit thread or when the funny Youtube video keeps freezing every fourteen seconds. On a more serious note though, high latency has the potential to ruin a video interview or a Zoom work meeting.
Not only are these delays troublesome for the individual, but they can also be dangerous for a business’s online presence.
Why a good network response time is vital to every business
What’s network latency for a business? Turns out, it’s highly critical to a company’s bottom line. This is because a delay in a webpage loading can result in a loss of traffic and therefore, reduce sales conversions. Online consumers have no patience for slow loading times. Nearly 40% of users will leave a website if it takes longer than three seconds to load.
So, low latency means a more responsive website for your business. This leads to a better UX for your customers and a higher conversion rate.
Now that we understand the importance of latency, let’s go over the factors that influence it.
What affects latency?
What your network latency is depends on a variety of causes. Below, we’ll cover four factors that affect lag time.
You’re far away from the server
Distance is arguably the most common reason why you experience high latency. So, what’s network latency like if you live in Minneapolis but are visiting a website that’s hosted by a server in Dallas? The answer is not great. This is because your request would have to travel a round-trip distance of roughly 2,000 miles!
Likewise, if you live in Minneapolis and are browsing a website hosted by a server in Milwaukee, the lag time will naturally be lower.
The bandwidth is low
Remember how we talked about the effect that bandwidth has on latency? Well, too much online traffic (aka a smoothie with a very thick consistency) will consume a ton of bandwidth. In turn, this can heighten the latency and potentially result in network lags.
You still rely on satellite internet
Time for an upgrade! If you’re curious about what network latency is with a satellite connection versus a cable, DSL, or Fiber connection, it’s much lower. This is because different internet connections come with varying latency capabilities. While cable, DSL, and Fiber all skew toward low lag in a range of 10-42ms, satellite has a higher latency of around 594-612ms.
It’s the website’s fault
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, and you simply experience lag because you’re browsing on a poorly optimized website. Inevitably, there’ll always be some intermittent latency on every site you visit. But, a webpage that isn’t optimized to work with a range of devices can cause a high lag time. Likewise, a website with heavy content (like too many high-quality pictures, GIFs, or videos) can lead to higher latency.
How to fix network latency
If you want to learn how to troubleshoot network latency issues, there are a few methods you can try to reduce your lag time. So, let’s go over two popular ways to get low latency: Subnetting and network monitoring tools.
What’s network latency in relation to subnetting? Subnetting is a method that helps diminish lag across your network system. This is because it groups network endpoints that communicate the most frequently with each other. As a result, you create a ‘subnet’ which functions as a network inside of a network to reduce needless router hops and boost latency.
Network monitoring tools
A second way to address latency troubleshooting is to leverage network monitoring tools. With most of these tools, you can set expectations for latency. Then, you receive notifications when the network lag time falls outside of your set expectations or when errors occur that affect latency.
You can also use a network mapping tool that helps you detect where the performance errors are within your network latency. This lets you locate and fix problems quickly.
Get lower latency for a stress-free online experience
Low latency is crucial to a smooth online user experience. Now that you know what network latency is, you can take the right steps to ensure your lag time stays low. Whether you’re working from home or playing your favorite video game, low latency improves your day-to-day digital activities.